Fiction Is Best Way to Tell God’s Story

Peter Paul Rubens, "The Four Evangelists"

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Four Evangelists”

Spiritual Sunday 

I taught Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried this past semester and realized suddenly that it has something to say to Bible literalists. I’m not sure that it will convince creationists, who have just scored a victory in Louisiana, but it may prove clarifying to others.

I’ve always thought that Biblical literalists sell the Bible short. It may have magnificent stories that speak to our deepest truths, but too often these literalists reduce it to pseudoscientific assertions about the creation of the universe and what really happened to the dinosaurs. What they don’t acknowledge is what O’Brien’s discovers: “[S]tory-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

O’Brien comes to this realization as he struggles to tell “a true war story.” At first we assume that O’Brien is merely attempting to convey happening-truth as accurately as he can. After all, the book appears to be composed of eyewitness accounts of the actions of the men of Alpha Company, and O’Brien’s fellow soldiers show up both in the book and in the book’s dedication. Furthermore, O’Brien himself appears in the book, recounting what he claims to have seen and telling us why he shaped the book as he did.

We soon learn, however, that O’Brien is a self-confessed unreliable narrator. He will tell us a story as though it were true and then, a little later, recant the story. At one point he describes the man he killed in Vietnam, at another he says that he didn’t kill this man—someone else did—but that he felt responsible. The book is entitled The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction, which may lead us to discount everything–only a lot of the book seems to be describing things that really happened.

O’Brien’s writing process is, I suspect, a lot like that of the Bible’s authors. At one point O’Brien asserts that, to convey truth,

All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth.

Elsewhere he writes,

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened . . . and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.

If the Biblical authors had only told happening-truth, the Bible would be a lesser work. It takes an artist, not a chronicler, to approximate God’s magnificence.

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  • Barbara

    Since it’s academic crazy season, I’m just getting caught up on your posts, Robin. Your posts are my morning oasis (unless I get too rushed…)

    Anyway, this take on scripture reminds me of a quote from Ursula Le Guin. This is paraphrase from her introduction to an edition of “The Left Hand of Darkness”. (Aside: This book has a wonderful take on gender roles. Everyone on the planet known as “Winter” can be either male or female in a particular sexual encounter and may, therefore, be a father to one child and a mother to another by the same sexual partner.) She describes the writing of fiction as “I am going to tell you lies. And when I am finished, if I’ve done my work well, you will have a little piece of truth.”

  • Robin Bates

    Thank you, Barbara. I love the idea of being an oasis keeper. Your LeGuin quotation reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s famous poem about how to tell the truth. It reminds me a little of the veil that Moses would have to wear after having communed with God so that the children of Israel wouldn’t be blinded:

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant,

    Success in circuit lies,

    Too bright for our infirm delight

    The truth’s superb surprise; 



    As lightning to the children eased

    With explanation kind,

    The truth must dazzle gradually

    Or every man be blind.

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